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Me: 'Antonio, give me a sentence with "feel" ... '
Antonio: "I feel my mother."
Me: 'What questions might you be asked in a job interview?'
Miguel: 'How long is it?'
A couple of the linguistic gems to have lit up my classroom in the last week or two. I'd love to say I've changed names in the interests of anonymity, but I don't think either student is likely to be reading this. Not that I'm one to mock, of course - in my own Spanish lessons of late, I've talked about how I'll have one hundred anuses when I'm older and claimed I ate myself for breakfast at the weekend. Language is a tricky business; both to learn and teach.
Perhaps you've thought about Teaching English as a Foreign Language before, perhaps you haven't. Those who are interested in this wonderful, frustrating vocation need to GUTA. That's get used to acronyms. TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) is perhaps the most common, TESOL (Teaching English as a Secondary or Other Language) is another oft-heard one, and then there's FCE, CAE, VAK, TPR, TBL ... and any number more. Nothing can't be improved by acronymising it!
Anyhoo, there are some things EFL teaching is, and some things it isn't;
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It is ...
- Endlessly varied and unpredictable.
- Relatively free of red tape and jumping through hoops; for the most part, you're trusted to do your job properly.
- Pretty well-paid by the standards of the country you're living in (usually).
- A chance to live in some wonderful places (often unexpectedly so), with all the benefits that may bring.
It isn't, though ...
- Terribly secure or reliable employment, or supported by Unions.
- Well-paid by English standards.
- An easy job or a free holiday.
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What's the average working day?
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I'll be honest - one of the things I love most about the job is the working hours, and the life-work balance it brings. Classes at my current school start at four or half-past, with three hour-long lessons back-to-back before a half-hour break at seven thirty and a final ninety-minute lesson until nine thirty. The late evenings aren't ideal, but I'm happy to trade in early dinners for being able to leave the alarm clock off.
I tend to arrive at school around three, sometimes before, to plan my lessons - although with fairly regular meetings and workshops, I'll often be in considerably earlier. As such, my working day's probably slightly shorter than the standard nine-to-five, although there will also be those that are considerably longer. In my previous job in Poland, with the lessons being spread out over the day, I'd sometimes work ten or eleven-hour slogs.
Working in Spain now, there's much more of an emphasis on Younger Learners - which can mean anything from four or five year-olds right up to mid-teenage classes. I only have the one genuine adult class, although my older teens are (normally) pretty mature and feel much the same to teach as their older counterparts. This focus on younger students is either a boon or a pain in the posterior; some people like teaching children for the creativity, unpredictability and untempered enthusiasm involved, whereas to others this looks more like a bunch of screaming, ill-disciplined little sods who want to do anything but learn.
With a range of ages from five to fifty-something and levels from absolute beginner to verging on advanced, the job really does throw some wonderful variety at you. On Wednesday, for instance, I segued nicely from asking kids what colours their shoes were ('Rosa!' - 'And in English?' - 'Peeenk!') to discussing how we express regret using the third conditional ('If my hamster hadn't died, I would have been happy.')
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How does one become an EFL Teacher?
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Legend tells of a time when you could park your donkey in any town square and cry "I'm English! I don't mind fraternising with the natives! Can I have a job?" And more often than not, someone would be obliging. Alas, not now. Discounting this method (which isn't completely impossible, depending on where you plan to work), there are two routes into the industry; the CELTA and Trinity Certificates. These are essentially very similar qualifications, with much the same content and equal standing in the eyes of potential employers.
Find information here (http://www.trinitycollege.co.uk/site/?id=293) and here (http://www.cambridgeesol.org/exams/teaching-awards/celta.html).
A certificate is one of the tools you'll need to find employment; depending on the country you're looking to work in, (good) jobs may ask for experience, and most places prefer their teachers to hold degrees. Generally, Eastern Europe and the Far East are good places for newly-qualified teachers to find work. Ideally, one's first school would offer a good induction and training programme, which can make a world of difference in the first year.
In terms of where to find work, www.tefl.com and www.eslcafe.com are well-trusted for their range of vacancies and reliability. I've used the former, which is an excellent, well-laid-out site with a broad, daily-updated database of positions which can be searched by country, type of position and various other parameters.
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Highs of the job ...
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Most of the time, I really like my job; it gives you a good balance between working and not, there's plenty of training and development available and a great deal of variation from day to day; there's relatively little scope for boredom. Additionally, there's the opportunity to develop a range of skills; you're not just a kids' teacher, nor do you only teach adults. You work across a broad range of ages, skills and personalities - all of which make the work endlessly interesting and entertaining.
There's perhaps a perception - not only of TEFL, but of all strands of education - of a teacher needing to be an outgoing, bubbly personality who can talk for their country. This may or may not help you as a teacher, but it's certainly not a necessity. If you've got a good grasp of your native language's grammar, you have an interest in language-learning and you're genuinely interested in working with people of all ages, you'll likely do well as an EFL Teacher. No two teachers are the same or teach the same way, and it's wonderfully satisfying to develop your own way of doing so.
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... and Lows.
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There is, it must be said, substantial variation between schools which can make all the difference to the job. Class sizes, materials, working hours and levels of support will vary substantially between language schools, and it's certainly worth doing your homework before accepting a position. For example, I've had two younger students who came into the academic year on final warnings for behaviour, couldn't improve, and were removed by the management (much to the displeasure of the parents, but hey ...). Now the class is incomparably better-behaved, and actually learn something. At another nearby school, a friend has had similar problems, but in this case, the owners are reluctant to lose the students (or, at least, their fees) and the issues are ongoing.
There are a number of large companies with multiple branches worldwide, such as International House, English First and Bell amongst others. Working in one of these schools affords a certain confidence in good management, although they are effectively franchises, and as such, do vary in numerous areas. On the other hand, independent or much smaller schools may not offer the same "guarantees", but if you choose wisely, may well offer a more appealing, relaxed working environment in which your voice is better heard.
The job can be difficult at times - there are long hours occasionally, equally behaviour is inevitably an issue to some degree, and you may or may not be under pressure to ensure your students achieve certain goals. However, if you're flexible - and if you remember that things get easier with experience - these negatives shouldn't impact too heavily on your satisfaction with the role.
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Inevitably, EFL teaching isn't for everyone. However, if it's something which appeals to your sensibilities, interests and skill set, it can make for a fascinating, rewarding position that offers a world of possibilities. Whether you're in it for a year or two's experience or setting your sights on a long-term career, there's plenty of demand, and plenty of opportunities for those with the skill and will for the job.
(And, of course, you can always amuse yourself with your students' gaffes.)
No, that would be caretaker of a tropical island off the coast of Queensland, a topic I just taught a class on, but this one's pretty close.
ESCAPING THE RAT RACE
There are two main breeds of EFL instructors: those who are professional teachers and those who are anything but. People often decide to spend a year or two teaching either before starting their career, or as a break after a few years of "proper" work. Why teaching? Quite simply because it is one of the easiest jobs to find abroad, since you don't usually need to speak the local language, and visas are granted without much fuss since you're legitimately bringing a skill lacking in the local population, namely being a native English speaker. Teaching is not my first venture abroad - I've been everything from an au pair to a holiday rep to a software developer to a hospital manager during my previous stints - but when I was looking to come to Latin America, it seemed the best option for my then limited Spanish.
As mentioned in an earlier review, there are two main qualifications new teachers can aim for, the CELTA or the Trinity ESOL. These are equally recognised throughout the world, and though they're expensive - about £1000 for the course, be it intensive over 4 weeks, or part time over a year - they are worth it. Last week at school I had stolen one of the reception computers to do some printing since the computer room was being used for exams. A prospective teacher came in, asking about vacancies. She didn't have CELTA or Trinity, but she had "done a course online". This may be enough in some places, but with the glut of teachers in Mexico City, it was very unlikely she would get a job. The key problem with those courses is the absence of teaching practice - I had to teach 6 hours during my course, which isn't even very much, but is loads compared to, well, nothing. Classroom experience is the thing, more than any amount of theory, which best prepares you for an actual job, and shouldn't be underestimated.
FINDING A JOB
There are many ways to work as a teacher: you can do it very casually, picking up private students here and there until you have as much of a full schedule as you want; you can sign on with a few agencies who will find you classes here and there, or you can work for a language school. I currently do the latter, since I was offered a job by a different branch of the school I did my training with. I also have private students though - almost everyone does, since they pay cash in hand, and are a good way to build up a little extra income. Craigslist, if it's available for the place you want to work, is a good place to source jobs as all sorts of agencies and schools advertise there. Alternatively, some of the websites below will email you new vacancies as they appear. If you're already in town, you can CV drop in schools, if you're not, you can email off your CV, but many places will want to interview you in person before offering you a position. For this reason, though it might be scary, it's easier to move to the country you're interested in and then look for a job, rather than the other way round.
There are lots of agencies who will, for a fee, find you a job, but I have never tried these. It's not that hard to find a job, so I'm not sure why you'd pay for a service to do it for you, and if jobs are scarce in your destination of choice, you'll quickly find you're offered dodgy or poorly paid positions, if they find you anything at all. If you are more socially-minded, there are numerous places you can volunteer as an English teacher from two weeks to a year, with or without a certification, but again you will often pay for placement here, and very little of that money (if any) goes to the charity concerned. I would prefer to do what a friend of a friend does, which is to teach paid classes during the week, and open her backyard for an hour or two at weekends to offer free "community" classes to anyone who wants them.
PERKS OF THE JOB
I was wooed by our country director when he visited during the CELTA course and made me a job offer, and for the large part, every one of the perks he mentioned has materialised. I was collected at the airport and driven to one of the school's apartments, where a room was all ready for me, as was my new mobile phone. My job which started a few days later, came complete with a contract promising holiday pay, sick leave, internet access and free Spanish lessons. For each of my first classes, I was driven to the location (our classes are mainly in business offices, not at the school) and introduced to the students. I was given access to various training courses free of charge, including in house and external certificates, to further my teaching skills. My timetable of 20 hours (this is full time) was not too insane in terms of travelling time (unpaid), and I got Fridays off each week in exchange for teaching an (often-cancelled) Saturday morning class. My visa was processed, and paid for by the school, and a bank account set up in my name. After Christmas (with its cash bonus, and its fabulous free party) my new timetable, as promised, gave me back my weekends, since Saturdays are only part of the deal for your first 6 months with the school.
The benefit of being on a contract here is that if classes are cancelled, or come to an end, you still get paid. My base salary is based on a 20 hour working week, but it's up to the school to give me those hours, and if they can't, I don't get penalised. If I work over that, I am paid overtime. Teachers who don't want to be tied down can opt for freelance work with my school, and receive a higher hourly rate, but also don't get paid for cancellations, or when we have Christmas and Easter breaks. My salary is generous by Mexican standards, but then the general rule with TEFL is that you'll be paid enough to live comfortably in your new home, though initially the miniscule amounts of pay may come as a bit of a shock until you remember the cost of living is wildly less. I earn 9500 pesos per month, which is currently just over £450. This is supplemented with about 2000 pesos from my private student. Still, it's not all that much (my UK mortgage - currently being paid from savings - is more than my base monthly salary here). You don't teach EFL to become rich, or to save too much, but you can have a comfortable life for that amount - for me this means my own apartment, membership at a nice gym, not having to think twice about meals out or cinema visits, and a long weekend away at least once a month, including bus or airfare and the hotel. I actually feel like I have more disposable income here than on my last (much better paid) job in the UK, since at home my money gets eaten up by council tax and car insurance and all those other things I don't have to worry about here.
This is my first time abroad when I've had more ex-pat friends than local ones, something I'm not too happy with. Yes, I like the Brits and Americans and Canadians and Australians I spend my free time with, but I didn't come to Mexico to loll around speaking English all night, when by definition that's what I spend my days doing. I do have Mexican friends, but you have to make more of an effort to meet people. The upside of this, is that working for a school you automatically meet people of the same age, same nationality, same background as you, so if you're someone who worries about being lonely, EFL teaching is quite a good option. Most of the teachers here are in their 20s or early 30s, and unmarried. That's not to say you can't do it if you're older (we have teachers in their 40s and 50s too) or married, or if you have children, but upping and leaving your life at home is naturally more difficult. Just look at the comments section on this review which will no doubt shortly be filled with "I wish I could do this but...." messages. For the record you also do not need to be "brave" to do this - any monkey could do what I have done, you just need enough funds for a one way plane ticket and a sense of adventure.
IT'S GOOD TO TALK
I have two types of classes, groups and 1-to-1s. The groups are simple - we follow the assigned text book, with a few games or other activities thrown in. The 1-to-1s, while a lot of fun, require more input. You have to take part in the whole lesson, as if you were a student at times (no "pair work" when it's just you and them). You have to gel with the student otherwise it's going to be a torturous hour or two, but I've been lucky and had some real characters. In order to get private English lessons from your company, you have to be at a certain point on the hierarchy, so my students are all directors or senior managers, of international banks, consultancies, pharmaceutical companies and so on. They are all advanced, but just want to keep up their English so mainly we....talk. Sometimes it's about work, sometimes it's about something completely different: we've had discussions on 13 year olds having babies, Pancake Day, atheist busses, Bonfire Night, Chelsey Davy's relationship status on Facebook, store cards, octuplets...you name it. I once improvised a whole class on the miss-selling of endowment mortgages after a student asked a question which led the conversation that way, and this week we were talking about stakeholder vs. final salary pensions, and the whole RBS debacle. Another student used to watch Nip/Tuck the night before classes, and each week would steer the conversation to what was happening with Kimba, or who the Carver was (they're a little behind on their series here). I can think of a lot worse ways to make a living than sitting around talking about anything and everything for an hour and a half several times a week.
I try to teach in a subtle way, because as nice as talking is, I do want them to learn. Depending on the student, this can be immediate correction of grammar or pronunciation, or a follow up lesson addressing a certain point they seem to struggle with. My 1-to-1s don't want (and won't do) homework, but my other classes usually get some, and everyone has to do an exam at the end of the course, regardless of how important they are. This means work for me - marking, correcting etc - but is an understood part of the job.
I get my inspiration from the news (and wonder how one could ever have taught in the days before UK newspapers were available online) but also from more unlikely sources, and once used an unedited Dooyoo opinion on Kiva to launch a lively debate about charitable giving. I've also used loads of songs - for example, the "Cell Block Tango" from Chicago when we were doing a unit on Crime and Punishment. I'm still trying to work out a way to use the Friday Night Comedy podcasts from Radio 4 in class, because I'm just addicted to them.
I find I learn from the classes as much as the students. I now know Mexicans see themselves as 3rd world (or an "emerging market" in financial speak). I know how healthcare works here, why the political system is corrupt, how they see the rest of the world (one group rather sweetly told me they thought all English people were serious and boring until they met me). I also know that they are convinced - CONVINCED - that there are 5 continents in the world, and no amount of discussion will convince them otherwise. What's more, I am learning things I should probably already have known, in order to answer the many, many questions about life in the UK from my younger students whose dream is to move there. From the structure of the Church of England to the purpose of the House of Lords, to the difference between a bank and a building society, I'm learning all the things I would have picked up years ago had I not slept through those boring humanities classes at school. There's no such thing as useless knowledge, so I'm more than happy with this.
A TYPICAL DAY
The one thing that sucks about my job here is the hours - not because I work so many, but because they're so spread out throughout the day to accommodate students who want classes first thing, over (a late, Latin American) lunch, or in the evening after work. This means I can start at 8am, and finish at 9pm, but only teach 3 classes in a day. Sometimes I long for an evening in, but most of the time I'm happy to get on with it since I'm used to it after 10 months here. So a typical day for me, might go something like this:
6.45am: Leave home, catch a metro, then a bus out to the business district
8am: Teach a 90 minute one-on-one class
9.30am: Travel back into the city centre, grabbing a quick snack on the way
10.45am: Spanish class! My reason for coming to Mexico, so something I never skip.
12.15pm: Lunch on the run, as I'm heading north again for another class.
1pm: Teach a 90 minute group class
2.30pm: Travel / think about my next lessons, and do a quick plan in my head
3.30pm: Gym time! The one bonus of this schedule is I get an almost empty gym since I go at an unpopular time.
5.30pm: Time to shower, eat, and maybe do some photocopying at the school
7pm: Teach a two hour group class at the school, handily located a few blocks from my apartment.
9.15pm: Home for the night, with enough time to check my emails before bedtime, ready for another early start tomorrow.
Not all my days are like this, though. On Fridays I finish at 10.30am, which is a lovely start to the weekend. On a Wednesday, I often have the afternoon off, before a 5.30pm class, so I have more time to plan lessons or do a bit of shopping or whatever. Our courses run in 30 hour blocks, which means every 10 weeks or so we get a break from a class, as they have a week off before starting again. Because different classes start on different days, these off weeks are staggered which means I get a few weeks in a row with a lighter schedule, which is a bonus.
WHAT IT TAKES
My opinion would be that anyone can be an EFL teacher. You're often working with adults, so you don't have to be able to handle classes of misbehaving kiddies. You don't need to have an outstanding knowledge of grammar, just be open to learning new things (if you quickly look at a rule before class, you can often fool the students into thinking you've known it forever). The important thing in my mind is to be creative and fun. Everyone likes games, including the directors of Fortune 500 companies, and while there are some great websites available which will list loads of options, I still like to make up my own. My favourites are:
- the name game (you have to describe yourself using the letters of your name, so for Zoe I could be Zebras, Orange Juice and Energetic)
- Board scrabble (like the original sort, but played on a white board, and with points awarded based on word length. An extension of this is then to make them write a story using some of the words on the board)
- Find someone who (an age-old EFL game, where you give the students a list and make them talk to the others in the class to find someone who....speaks 3 languages / can ride a horse / likes football etc etc)
MY "COULDN'T LIVE WITHOUT"S
Though creativity and enthusiasm will get you a long way, there are certain tools of the trade that I think are invaluable. I could not live without a good grammar book (see my review of Murphy's classic), and a good dictionary with phonemic script - mine has both US and British English, but at a push you could use an online version. I need whiteboard markers, since these are never in the rooms I teach in, and the ability to forget I can't draw as I'm forever scribbling things on the board. Yesterday I had to draw the difference between "over a bridge" and "under a bridge" and my car and bicycle were so abstract I promptly told the class this was what both items would look like in several years time, and weren't they lucky to have a teacher so skilled in seeing the future? Since I teach in meeting rooms, not class rooms, CD players are never available. Rather than lug a boom box around with me, I have stuck all my listening CDs onto my iPod and carry the much smaller speakers instead. This also means I never have to think about having the right CD with me, though the downside is when I put the thing on shuffle when I'm at the gym and right after Britney, I'm assaulted with some dreary recording from a mock paper for a Cambridge BEC exam. Next, I just love a free book available from the British Embassy here (and all over the world, no doubt), which lists questions and answers about the UK - just the thing for answering those pesky questions I mentioned above. Finally, though it's probably not proper to say so, I couldn't do without a basic knowledge of Spanish. Living in Mexico aside, I simply find it makes me a better teacher, because I know why students make the mistakes they do, and this makes it easier to correct them. You can certainly teach abroad without a grasp of the local language, but personally, I wouldn't want to.
For me, EFL teaching is not a career. I have a perfectly nice career back home, thank you very much, and will be returning to it at some point, since there's only so long you can spend away without falling behind. That said, I think I am learning a lot here, and I don't think a year out will be too detrimental to my long term career goals. That's not to say I wouldn't return to it in the future either, should I feel the need for another career break, because it is a reasonably easy lifestyle, and very fun, plus my certification never goes out of date. Who knows, you may well be reading an insane amount of travel reviews on Argentina or Chile on this very site one day.
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